“Who’d have thought total warfare could be so tedious,” groaned Caldwell, commander of East Street Battalion.
Fortunately, he wasn’t expecting a response. The soldiers in his unit were glassy-eyed and dead on their feet. Their slumped formation reminded him of laundry hung out to dry and forgotten. Just when he’d finally found something to fill his unit with life and purpose, it was in danger of being drained away by more delays.
“Here we are again,” he continued saying to no one in particular. “Underground, in a queue — just to get a stamp on our reports, so we can go and join another bloody queue.”
The sprawling tunnel network was a defining achievement of the war years: ingenious one-way systems snaked their way beneath every British city. They were carved out by soldiers conscripted from all sides, but obviously at different times as a conflict-reduction measure.
Total warfare had ravaged the country for the past seven years. Ground-level was designated for fighting, which necessitated that the coordination and administration of war-related activities take place in underground passageways. Battlefields were deemed too chaotic to coordinate hostilities with any practical outcome.
As armed conflict wore on, soldiers found themselves increasingly underground, traversing proliferating administrative zones.
“I can’t understand why people can’t travel directly to where they need to be,” suggested Blair, who’d joined the unit after having changed allegiances from the West Wycombe Levellers. She was recently widowed, and believed that through moaning, she would forge a bond with her new commander, whom she was in love with.
“If we have to reschedule this battle again I’ll be fuming,” Caldwell answered.
“It’d hurry things along if the enemy didn’t have to wait for a permit,” Blair added. Her huge buck teeth protruded from her face as she tilted her head and contorted a coy smile.
Caldwell grimaced as he swigged from his flask. “Ever since deregulation, Londoners need a permit to travel north. Add to that the multiple train tickets and bus fares involved and that’s a lot of paperwork to be inspected and signed off. Even if they manage that, they’d need to book passage on the ferry to get over to this side of the river. Nobody can reserve seats and travel on the same day unless they’re royalty.”
“Maybe they are royalty, wouldn’t that be exciting,” Blair said cheerfully, batting her eyelashes.
Caldwell didn’t answer. He spat his drink on the floor and kicked the wall, they’d be bedding down in the waiting bay for another long damp night.
It was common practice for soldiers to kick the walls in frustration at the delays that prevented resolution to hostilities. Buried in an avalanche of bureaucracy no one side could gather momentum. This led to bitter infighting, wherefrom more splinter groups would form. It was said that this was tough on the administrators too, because they were constantly updating their register; always one step behind knowing which faction aligned themselves to which ideology.
Cromarty was the famed tunnel maintenance official, who decided, early on in the war, to apply rubber padding in panels along the lower part of the tunnel walls — thus anticipating the frustration of soldiers, whilst preserving tunnel infrastructure. This was an ongoing project, as miles of new tunnel networks were laid each month in order to separate newly forming factions and splinter cells.
For providing so many soldiers with work, Cromarty was lauded as the nearest thing to a political leader England had in recent years.
Cromarty’s administrative jurisdiction was feted as an oasis of efficiency and purpose leading Caldwell to convince his unit that getting there was the Holy Grail of self-actualisation. Many in the battalion had not seen action for months, with some having been underground for the entirety of the war; therefore, motivation was key. Cromarty was a name that practically sold army uniforms.
For Caldwell, there was an ulterior motive for the mission; Cromarty had powers to assign and re-allocate troops to units that were short on numbers. This obsessed Caldwell since the machinations of the war council had split him from his wife and child.
Cromarty was also rumoured to know things.
It was commonly accepted that war spread from the Midlands to consume the country; post-industrial towns tended to be violent as the immolation of towns like Liverpool and Sunderland would attest. What was lesser known was why civil war started in the first place. Most commanders didn’t know, it wasn’t their place to know, but Cromarty knew — he’d produced a thesis on the subject called, “Cleaning Up after Society’s Gone.”
Officials quickly confiscated and destroyed the thesis but the war council decided to keep its author close, making him a poster boy for orderliness. They knew he posed a threat to their authority.
Caldwell needed to know what Cromarty knew.
The next morning, the entire battalion received their stamps and replenished rations to see them through their scheduled clash with the Millwall Chartist Party.
They were getting close.
Caldwell lined his soldiers and addressed them nobly: “Junction 73 is just thirteen miles due south. Battle time is ten a.m.; any delays and it’s rescheduled for at least another month. That’ll mean weeks in these dank tunnels, sleeping on cold stone. We’ll need to run a half-marathon with full rucksacks to get to the CRB [that is, the Conflict Resolution Bureau] to be issued with our weapons, but if there is anyone that can do it, it is you lot.”
“I’ll play, sir,” came a voice from the rear. Clifton stepped forward brandishing his saxophone which gleamed like a new gun. “I’ll ensure we all jog in rhythm.”
And so, the day began with a bleary-eyed troop stretching and yawning; they’d spent the night slumped against the damp tunnel walls. A long note from Clifton’s saxophone cleaved through the heavy atmosphere. The warm melody that followed slid along the curved walls and the unit was roused like the way a grass gets greener just before rain.
For a battalion with an average age of forty-eight, they moved seamlessly; they were light on their feet when a purpose presented itself. Caldwell couldn’t help but be impressed as he mopped the sweat from around his eyes — they might be outnumbered but his bunch had grit.
Foreign correspondents were more than a little confused by the British situation, leading the famed American cultural commentator Axl Rose, in his insightful tract on the issue, to ask: “What’s so civil about war anyway?” Many journalists referred to total warfare as a patchwork quilt of dissenting voices. But what they didn’t know was that the thread running through it was flimsy and could only withstand so much tension.
Scorched earth ideologies had left cities resembling the surface of the moon and the economy in tatters — people were losing patience. Caldwell was convinced that spreading knowledge of why the war began would unravel so many entrenched rivalries. Seven years of active service taught him that hatred against the council could unite people all over the country.
“I’m sweating like a fucking zoo,” Blair shrieked, as she struggled to keep pace.
“What?” Caldwell couldn’t hear her over the saxophone creating a constant surge of noise.
“How far to go?” she yelled.
“Two miles,” he shouted back.
They were getting close. The unit moved like the music would force them through the tunnel and spew them into the daylight.
Caldwell envisioned the pale sun soaking into his skin. He considered the tunnels to be the arteries pumping a great heart throbbing with pride and camaraderie, duty and service. Amongst the bullet-ridden walls and bombed-out streets, he had optimism that great ideas were being fleshed out. Ruins provided hope for change. All kinds of propaganda carried the optimistic slogan, “Renaissance from the ashes.” Yet it was the council chambers where the real brain functioned as they controlled the printing press.
As Caldwell contemplated being back outside amongst the ruins, he remembered his father’s words when he first came home in his army fatigues, in the years where tensions hadn’t spilled into total war yet.
“You’re dressed to play your role now. The script is these city streets — you need to learn them by rote and produce poetry from the thumping of your boots. When things get tough, I want you to imagine the overwhelming satisfaction of eating your sandwiches in a public square when everyone else is working, when it’s not even lunchtime. No one will dare look at you from within their offices because of that lovely neat uniform and your shiny boots.”
His father was a sickly man, spending much of his life indoors cheering the violent skirmishes from the side-lines; he supported whatever he read in the Mail, which meant he often changed sides.
“A penny for them,” Blair asked, she was still panting.
“Whenever I get close to getting back on the battlefield I tend to think of my father.”
“Mulling over some old pearls of wisdom, Commander?”
“I’m not sure. He was not of sound mind.”
Clifton’s notes were getting deeper and longer. The troop was slowing down. Something was awry. Caldwell jogged up the line, but Kumar, who was at the front, had already starting coming towards him.
“What’s the hold up?”
“We’re being directed to a waiting bay, Commander,” Kumar announced, wringing his hands.
“We’re only half a mile from our Junction. Who are we waiting for this time?”
“They said we’re to wait for the Derbyshire Liberals to cross as they’re needing to move south.”
“Right, I’ll teach those office lackeys.”
Caldwell marched over to the boarding gate.
“Why are you letting that lot through before us?”
“Commander, this is standard protocol. Units having travelled further receive priority….”
“But if we get delayed, we haveto travel further. Can you not see how that creates a vicious cycle?”
“Commander, using that accusatory tone will not get any of us anywhere.”
He reached over the desk and pinned the clerical workers wrists to the desk. “You bureaucrats don’t want to be free, you couldn’t handle freedom.”
“You soldier types have absolutely no restraint!” The desk worker struggled to free his hands, his section manager came over to assist.
“If you’re caught fighting down here you’ll be suspended from the war,” she warned.
Caldwell pulled his hands back: “None of you have the guts to live up there where you are obliged to think on your feet and live with the consequences of your actions.”
“You need to learn patience, Commander.” The section manager snapped.
His troops would not be fighting today.
Caldwell needed to find another way to Cromarty. He surveyed the warren of corridors cluttered with discarded reports. Before him appeared a melting tessellation of reality which threatened to ripple and recoil before shifting into some other shape. Which way now, he thought.
Perhaps it was his thumping heart that distorted his vision but he resolved to start moving and hope the answer would find him.
“Where are you going?” Blair called out.
“I have a duty to my family,” he called back, breaking into a run.
“But we are your family….”
As he ran, saliva thickened around his throat, gripping his tongue like a vice. Endless chambers whizzed by, each identical to the next without an identifying marker of any kind. It was if the complex expanded as he moved, as if the grey administrative monotony consumed his fears and used them as fuel.
The further he ran, the more his mind unravelled. His son would soon be old enough to fight, but on whose side? Fears came to taunt him. The urge to keep running was irresistible — he decided to run until his body was empty, uncluttered and uncontaminated.
He stopped fearing dehydration and fatigue, the real enemy was bureaucracy.
After what seemed like hours, his legs began to get heavy. The pounding of his feet against the concrete slowed, and with it, things stopped spinning.
He wound down to a halt. He could hear a low grating sound.
It grew louder. The grinding noise was shaking the tunnels. Suddenly, the walls themselves appeared to move, presenting only one direction Caldwell could take, and instinctively he knew he was heading into the belly of the council chambers.
He succumbed to the strange attraction that the chambers held over him, allowing instinct to dictate his fate. After feeling his way down the dimly lit passageway, he reached a large, ornately-decorated wooden door. On it was a sign that read: “From the flames of conflict, truth is forged.”
From this new vantage point he could see where he’d come from. He could appreciate the artistry of the compound. There was order amongst the chaos.
He edged into a beautiful oak-panelled office, which was filled with bookshelves sagging under the weight of confiscated books. His clammy hand stroked the trigger of the gun under his jacket as he stepped further into the room. Cromarty was sat facing the wall, conducting with his left hand and mumbling to himself, a thick book was cradled in his right arm.
His chair slowly swivelled around. The man was morbidly obese resembling sausage meat squeezed into a pin-striped suit. His small eyes were yellow and watery, but his skin was snow white — he’d clearly not been above ground in a long time. He gave a knowing smile.
“I’ve been wanting to meet you for a while,” Caldwell replied in hushed tones. He closed the office door behind him.
“What could a Commander of — what battalion exactly — possibly want with me?”
“A bit of a generic name for a battalion, don’t you think?”
“It refers to where it was formed, nothing more.”
“Your heart’s not really in this war business, is it?”
“And yours is? You can’t have seen daylight in years.”
“I can assure you, I see just as much action down here. I don’t need to be up there trying to collect medals.”
“Well, I’m glad you’ve found purpose behind a desk whilst everyone else is killing each other.”
“What is it you want, Commander? As you can see, I’m a busy man.”
“I’ve come for your thesis.”
Cromarty laughed and mockingly padded his suit pockets, before slapping his forehead and nodding towards an overflowing ashtray.
“Maybe you’ll have better luck looking in there.”
Caldwell swallowed hard and took in a deep breath as he pulled out his gun and held it to Cromarty’s head. “I’m thinking we’d have better luck looking in here,” he said nudging his fat head with the gun. He was trembling. They both were.
Cromarty was shocked, his sad yellow eyes focused on Caldwell.
“You’ve brought your weapon into the tunnels. That breaks every rule in the book. They’ll hang you for it.”
“I’ve been hanging for a long time already.”
“Put the gun down and we can discuss this in a civilised manner. I can’t think with that thing on me.”
Caldwell pulled up a chair to the large oval desk but he kept his gun pointed. “I just want to know why it all started.”
Cromarty slowly picked a handkerchief from his pocket and mopped his brow. “The million-dollar question.”
“If that’s how highly you value your life.”
Cromarty was still for a moment before finding a burst of energy to flip the table and make a dash for the door. He mustn’t have been active in a long time because immediately he stumbled and slapped on the floor. His flabby arms stretched for the door, which Caldwell forced shut with his foot.
“Please. You don’t need to kill me.”
“Then tell me what I need to know.”
“I don’t know why the war started, it wasn’t documented by anyone. Nobody wanted to know and no one can be certain of the real reason.”
“So why all the secrecy about your thesis?”
“It was destroyed because the war council ordered it so. They said it could damage morale.”
“What did it say?”
“I wrote about our natural instinct for conflict,” he nodded at the gun. “They said the terms I used could undermine the war effort.”
Caldwell thought about how he felt when his son took his first steps. It was a lifetime ago.
“I want to obliterate the war effort, it’s cost me everything. My wife’s battalion always seems one more battle away.”
“In your infinite wisdom the war council decided to split our battalion to even up the numbers with another group that had lost more soldiers.”
“But soldiers die all the time.”
“Exactly, it is almost like people are looking for an excuse to create more paperwork.”
“Why would anyone do that?”
“Those who hide behind desks don’t face bullets.” He looked at his gun. “Apart from you that is.”
“So what is this, your attempt to expose the war council?”
“No, this is simply revenge.” Caldwell raised his arm and aimed the gun between Cromarty’s swivelling yellow eyes and cocked the trigger.
At that moment, the heavy office door swung open. Before he could spin around, a masked soldier shot Caldwell two times in the chest. Blair was standing just outside weeping. She’d stitched him up — jealousy? Gasping for breath, it was like the floor rose up to meet him, he did not feel the landing. The gun sprung from his hand. He grabbed at Cromarty’s trouser leg who responded by holding up his hand and halting the masked gunman. He looked down at Caldwell, mournfully shaking his head.
“You’re not the first Commander to come crawling through these tunnels to find me and you certainly won’t be the last. It’s why you’re not given guns until you get outside.”
Caldwell choked back the pain determined for an answer — this was the only daylight he craved. “Tell me,” he pleaded.
Cromarty turned to the masked guard, who looked at the pool of blood forming around Caldwell and nodded assent. The door was kicked shut leaving Blair with another guard in the tunnel.
“My thesis was about thresholds. You see, on the battlefield people can explore their primal instincts — it’s lawless. It’s about opening the pressure valve and letting Mother Nature take over. People need to express themselves. What’s going on up there isn’t total warfare; I think of it as self-expression: an Expanded Disco. It’s a place of joy where combatants explore their deepest desires and thrash out their frustrations. The battlefield is an area for escape and reinvention.”
“You’re tearing this country apart,” Caldwell croaked.
“It was never whole to begin with, Commander. People like you must learn that the hard way.”
Caldwell was panting and gurgling. The tiled floor became blurred. The entire office throbbed back and forth. He remembered the nights on the first battlefield where he and his wife found solace, climbing up a charred oak tree that overlooked the conflict that lit the night sky. “Sometimes I imagine the bullets to be writing letters of love and longing across the sky,” his wife said.
He felt a boot in his ribs.
“What is it he’s trying to say?” Mumbled the masked guard. “Spit it out, man,” he insisted.
Caldwell could muster no more breath and with his blood-dipped finger he drew out the words, “United by a love of solitude.”
“What is that meant to mean?” The guard asked.
“It means, we are to fetch a mop and bucket and clean up this mess,” Cromarty replied.
John O’Hare is an artist and writer based in Bristol, UK. Having completed several short animations he has recently started writing short stories. To date, his writing has appeared in Crack the Spine’s the Year Anthology; Horla Magazine; Sculptorvox; and in the Writers and Readers Magazine (all in 2020). Recent screenings include – Videoart Miden; ICONA, Corfu; and Wellington Underground Film Festival (2019-20).